Town and Gown go to the movies


The relationship between the university campus and the non-academic community is a perennial and time-honoured issue. In modern Canada, the Ezra Street riot at Wilfred Laurier in 1995, the years-long cancellation of Queen’s University’s Homecoming due to the Aberdeen Street riot of 2005, and the Fanshawe College St. Patrick’s Day riots of 2013 are instances of the sometimes fractious interaction between town and gown. The phenomenon of conflict between town and gown dates at least as far back as Oxford’s Battle of St. Scholastica Day in 1355, where a tavern brawl resulted in townspeople attacking the university. While residents of communities bordering a university might harbour hidden desires to storm the local campus with pitchforks and scythes when kegger season is at its height, contemporary relations between town and gown go beyond such frictions. Indeed, many communities see universities and colleges as vital to the local economy and as engines of progress. In Ontario, towns such as Milton, Brantford, and Orillia are eagerly pursuing the development of local academic campuses.

Cultural attitudes to the relationships between universities and their surrounding communities are not only shaped by their interactions, but are also affected by portrayals of such interplay in popular media. Town and gown depictions go back to the early days of cinema. In Daddy Long Legs (1919), Mary Pickford plays a poor and brutalized orphanage inmate. A new trustee of the institution anonymously offers to pay for her college education. While at Princeton, the Pickford character is torn by her attraction to both a young freshman and the older uncle of her roommate, as well as by the secret of her humble origin. These economic, social, and romantic conflicts are resolved, following her rejection of the freshman, when her secret benefactor is revealed as her roommate’s uncle. Economic and social inequity is resolved by the romantic linking of town and gown. More importantly, the film demonstrates a series of antinomies that are frequently associated with the town and gown relationship: upper vs. lower class, intellect vs. emotion, order vs. disorder. These dualities provide the thematic structure of subsequent town and gown films.

Courtship involving a character from the town and one from the gown was to become one of the major themes in cinematic depictions of interaction between campus and the world outside. In The Blot (1920), the daughter of an impoverished professor lives next door to a working class family. The professor and his family eke out a living on his miserable salary, while the plebian family next door, lacking both refinement and education, prosper. The neighbour’s eldest son is in love with the professor’s daughter, although it is clear that his case is hopeless for reasons of cultural capital. The situation is rectified when a wealthy young student realizes the importance of academic pursuits, falls in love with the young woman, and persuades his tycoon father to raise faculty salaries.

In the later 1920s, postsecondary institutions came to be depicted as places attended by students who aspired to be a ‘Big Man on Campus’ and show ‘pep,’ while continuing the emphasis on finding a suitable mate. Getting an education was at best tangential to these pursuits. Characters played by stars like Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd engaged in a period of scholastic hijinks and physical activity before settling down to marriage and career responsibilities. While university provided the setting for this maturation, the local community often provided the mate. In The Freshman (1925), protagonist Harold Lamb (played by Lloyd) learns to be himself through a maturation process resulting, in part, from his courtship with the daughter of his boardinghouse landlady. Here, university is the location and off-campus romance is the means by which the hero re-enters the larger community as a mature citizen. The pattern was to be repeated in many other Jazz Age films.

These earlier town and gown films tended to present universities and colleges as spaces separate from society at large, and attendance as a rite of passage before rejoining society as an adult. During the Depression, screen universities became sites both of social concern and escapism. Postsecondary institutions were often presented as fantasy spaces outside the bounds of society and freed from the concerns of the Depression, where one could both escape and challenge social norms with impunity. In Collegiate (1935), a young playboy inherits a women’s college from his aunt and decides to turn it into a charm school, as academic pursuits are useless in a time of economic crisis. The hero hires entertainers as faculty and advertises in fashion magazines. Instead of graduation, the program of studies ends with students and faculty participating in a musical revue. By replacing academics with the pursuit of popular entertainment, he turns the school into a success. In College Swing (1938), comedienne Gracie Allen plays the descendant of the founder of Alden College, whose 1738 will stipulated that the college would become the property of any female descendant of his who passed her graduation examinations within 200 years of his death. Flashing forward to 1938, Gracie—who is, unfortunately, an idiot—manages to achieve this feat, albeit by cheating. Now in charge of the institution, she declares that she will banish entrance exams and possession of a high school diploma as prerequisites for admission. Gracie installs new faculty, including a professor of economics who says that the only reason people go to college is because they are rich and their fathers went to college before them. He counsels his students to sleep through his lectures, as he does. Gracie also hires a woman as professor of ‘practical love.’ Instead of university being a transitional space to adulthood, it becomes a carefree refuge from the Depression, a celebration of popular culture, and a rejection of both class and intellect.

During WWII such attitudes to the relationship between town and gown were seen as socially irresponsible. Universities were portrayed as sites where the ideological struggles between Nazism and the free world took place. Professors were transformed into both victims of the Axis and leading fighters in the struggle against fascism. Gary Cooper’s professor character in Cloak and Dagger (1946) becomes an OSS agent parachuted into Italy to rescue a physicist whose knowledge is vital to the Nazi nuclear weapons program. Reflecting the involvement of many faculty members in the war effort, academics became significant players in the welfare of the nation at large during this period. The Male Animal (1942) concerns a professor who is threatened with dismissal for being a Communist after reading a letter by Bartolomeo Vanzetti to his class. The professor becomes a successful defender of freedom of speech against the reactionary prejudices of the Board of Governors. Gown saves American values from town.

In the post-war period, engagement with the public sphere continued, but often by returning to the pre-war convention of academics participating in popular culture. In She Went to the Races (1945), Dr. Ann Wotters learns that her uncle has been dismissed from his research institute because of a lack of financing. To raise the $20,000 he needs for his research, Ann and her uncle’s colleagues devise a foolproof way to predict winners in horse races. This leads Ann to meet and fall in love with a horse owner, to best her rival for the love interest’s affection, and to retire from research to marital bliss on a farm. The film portrays a romantic conflict between intellect and academe on the one hand, and romance and ordinary life on the other. When trying to decide between these alternatives near the film’s end, Ann turns to one of her uncle’s colleagues for advice. “What does science say?” she asks. He responds, “Science, for once, keeps its big mouth shut.” Matters of the heart prevail as popular culture and nature triumph over intellect and the academy.

A similar theme plays out in It Happens Every Spring (1949), where a young academic’s job and future marriage to the daughter of the university president depends on his completion of his PhD. But an errant baseball crashes through his lab window, destroying the equipment producing his formula to protect trees from insects. The project now can’t be completed in time to get tenure. While cleaning up, he discovers that the baseball had been soaked in his formula, and now is repelled by wood. To finance his research, the scientist becomes a major-league baseball pitcher. In the process, he is befriended by a working class catcher, who integrates the academic into society at large. When the professor’s fiancé discovers that he is a professional ball player, she shares the secret with her parents, and they all become ardent fans of the game. The college president entertains a potential donor at one of these games, resulting in a donation that solves the institution’s financial problems. The protagonist becomes the head of a new research unit and his future romance and career are assured through the reconciliation of town and gown.

During the 1950s McCarthy period, campuses were suspected of harbouring ideological criminals who were a threat to American society. In The Stranger (1950), Orson Welles plays a fugitive Nazi war criminal disguised as a faculty member at an American college who is exposed by the patient investigation of a policeman. In many science-fiction films of the period, scientists are portrayed as fifth column collaborationists with alien invaders as seen in films like It Conquered the World (1956), where a scientist helps invading Venusians, or The Thing (1951), where
the head scientist at the Arctic base aids the titular alien after recovering a crashed flying saucer. In such cases, the common sense of the non-academic characters saves the earth from these professorial traitors.

During the late 1950s and the 1960s, with new social mores, the relationship between universities and the larger community both changed and perpetuated earlier depictions. In Teacher’s Pet (1958), a veteran newspaper reporter takes a class in journalism to show up the female professor. The professional antipathy between the two of them, and the implied conflict between academe and the school of hard knocks, is resolved through their romance. In The Nutty Professor (1963), a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jerry Lewis plays a nerdy scientist who is transformed by his formula into a playboy and lounge lizard. The conflict between the mind, represented by the professor, and the body, represented by the alter ego’s immersion in the off-campus world, is resolved by the professor’s discovery of true love. In The Gambler (1974), a literature professor is drawn by his gambling habit into the criminal underworld, antagonizing gangsters and a pimp in the process. In all these cases, Town and Gown are seen as separate realms, whose borders can only be crossed through emotional excess or social dysfunction.

Young Frankenstein (1974)’s protagonist, Frederick Frankenstein, is a professor of medicine in an American university and the descendant of the original Frankenstein monster’s creator. The university represents logic and control. Frederick, who disavows his forbear as a “cuckoo,” insists on the primacy of intellect and reason during a class experiment when he demonstrates the brain’s domination of the body. This seems to extend to Frederick’s love life, as his sexual desires are thwarted by his prudish fiancé, Elizabeth. When Frederick leaves campus and goes to Transylvania to obtain his inheritance, he is plunged into a different realm, where the body’s primacy and illogic is evident: Igor’s hump (of which the hunchback is unaware) keeps moving from side to side. Taking up his grandfather’s research, Frederick fashions a new Frankenstein monster, but inadvertently equips it with an abnormal brain. The result is a creature of the body, who proceeds to run amok. On one rampage, the monster seduces the all-too-willing Elizabeth. The monster is finally tamed by transferring Frederick’s mind to the creature, and the film ends with two marriages. In one, the now tame monster reads the Wall Street Journal while bickering with Elizabeth. In the other, Frederick’s assistant and new wife Inga wonders what her husband got in return for his mind. She discovers that it is the monster’s “enormous schwanzstucker,” signifying the triumph of the body over mind.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) continues the antinomies in the realms of gown and town. Annie Hall’s protagonist, Alvy Singer, is an intellectual comedian who entertains for liberal causes, often on campuses. He goes through a series of failed relationships because he cannot integrate the world of the mind with that of the body. His first marriage fails because he retreats into political analysis as a way of avoiding intimacy with his wife. His second wife is an academic who refuses his sexual advances because “there are people from The New Yorker in the next room.” While his attraction to Annie Hall is sexual, his intellectual mentorship leads to her attending university and beginning an affair with a professor—a step to the end of their romance.

More recent films dealing with town and gown continue in a similar pattern. In A Beautiful Mind (2001), a researcher’s affliction with mental illness is linked to his fantasies of Cold War paranoia set in an off-campus location and featuring imaginary non-academic government agents. Leaving academe and seeking treatment leads to no improvement. His path back to sanity is realized only by blotting out his madness through a return to campus and his research. The Social Network (2010) depicts the relationship of town and gown as one between Mark Zuckerberg—representing California, youth, and meritocracy—and the Winkelvoss twins, standing for Harvard, hypocritical control, old money, and faculty privilege. Mark’s journey from gown to town results in his fortune.

Throughout the history of cinema, town and gown issues have been treated with remarkable structural consistency, despite variations in thematic emphasis from period to period. These depictions have both been formed by, and shaped public perceptions of town and gown as two separate worlds. Crossing the borders between the two is always portrayed as a challenging journey, one with uncertain results. AM

Mark Langer is Retired Associate Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University.